The day after Ben Carson drops out of the presidential race, leaving a trail of weird childhood knife-fight stories, fake Josef Stalin quotes and fumbling entrances to debate stages, Trevor Noah picks up the phone. The South African comedian is in preparation mode for that evening’s “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, of which he took control in September, and he’s more than happy to eulogize the retired neurosurgeon’s bizarre campaign.
“Ah, man, it’s sad,” says Noah, 32. “What I loved about Ben Carson was, he was harmless fun. Donald Trump is dangerous fun, which I think the country’s slowly starting to learn. Ben Carson’s just light fun.
“Ben Carson was almost like the weed of the race,” Noah continues. “No deaths reported, nothing crazy, nothing out there, nothing destructive — you can just enjoy him with your friends. I’m going to miss that. I’m going to miss his language, style and his outlandish point of view.”
Much has been written about Noah’s predecessor, Jon Stewart, leaving the fake-news show he’d anchored for more than 16 years just before a bizarre presidential election full of Trump Steaks and Marcobots, feeling the Bern and Hillary emails about fixing her fax machine. But Noah’s charming on-air development in the middle of this “Desperate Horserace,” as the “Daily Show” recently called it, is almost enough to offset the pangs of missing Stewart.
Noah isn’t as satisfyingly curmudgeonly as his predecessor, and his jokes don’t draw nearly as much blood, but his timing is spot-on.
“You know it’s bad,” Noah riffed, after Trump blamed raucous Chicago protesters for canceling his recent appearance, “when people in Chicago are like, ‘Man, what a violent weekend.’ ”
Where Stewart always seemed on the verge of blowing smoke out of his ears, Noah has a relaxed, smiling presence that sneaks up on viewers. His impressions, for example, are steadily improving as the race goes on.
“Sometimes it takes more time than others — if I find the note is more complicated, I take a while to pick up what a person does,” he says. “I’m not an impersonator by nature. It takes a while to slowly happen over time.” The hardest candidate to imitate is Marco Rubio: “Because he’s a very plain guy — there are no real characters in his voice per se. And surprisingly, Donald Trump, because he has three different ways of speaking.”
Noah was born in Johannesburg, in the final years of apartheid, to a Xhosa-Jewish mother and Swiss father. Because of South Africa’s strict laws banning relationships between blacks and whites, Noah’s parents had to keep their son a secret — upon spotting the police, his father literally had to move to the other side of the street. Eventually his parents split up and Noah mostly lived with his mother in Soweto, Johannesburg’s shack-filled township for black families.
Noah was born in 1984. Apartheid fell when he was 10 years old.
“Overnight, it now became, like, it is no longer illegal to be black, so you can now do things … start by sitting on the benches, start by riding on the bus, start by walking through the city at whatever time,” the comic told Jerry Seinfeld on “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.” “Then slowly you go, what else can we do? You can sing, you can do shows. … Can we tell jokes? Yeah, you can tell jokes.”
Noah had told jokes to friends throughout his childhood. He did his first routine in public at a jazz club in Joburg. Soon, comedy was booming in South Africa’s largest city, and Noah, with his good looks, mischievous smile, talent for mocking officials in every local dialect and stay-up-all-night work ethic, became its biggest star. He hosted a children’s TV show and the prestigious local comedy awards, headlining clubs, then theaters, then he toured the U.S., then he appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “Letterman,” before Stewart hired him as a correspondent in 2014.
“Luckily, my parents never involved themselves in what I was doing professionally. … ‘just get out there and do what you need to do to earn a living,’ ” Noah says. “I was the first free generation of my family, because everyone before me was limited by the laws of South Africa. My mom didn’t say to me, ‘You have to go to university,’ because she didn’t get to go to university. In essence, I was the pioneer of the family, seeing what everything was like for the first time.”
After Stewart acolytes such as Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Larry Wilmore graduated to their own shows, Noah became his unexpected successor.
“The hardest thing is not ‘are the jokes funny enough?’ The hardest thing is the point of view and the angle and the take,” says Noah, who inherited most of Stewart’s writers and producers. “Jon and I always joke about how we come to the same conclusions but we use very different formulas to get there.
“It’s tough sometimes, because the news presents itself where you cannot escape what the thing is. You have to be different but you cannot be obscure,” Noah adds. “We have a pretty good hit rate when it comes to that, but I’m trying every single day to get higher and higher.”